Nicki Clark is a student in Butler’s Class of 2022, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Digital Media Production.
Butler University has begun in-person instruction amid the same pandemic that forced classes to move online during the spring 2020 semester. That wouldn’t have been possible without the people working behind the scenes to keep campus safe.
The first day of in-person classes on September 7 followed two weeks of virtual learning that kicked off the fall semester. While classes were supposed to be held in person from the start, University leaders made the difficult decision to begin the year online due to an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases on campus. Since then, the number of active cases has dropped significantly, allowing students to return to classrooms.
Brent Rockwood, Butler’s Chief of Staff, says the University is using a methodical, data-driven approach for its COVID-19 response. The choice to move the first two weeks of classes online, for example, was mainly due to a three-day time period when the campus positivity rate increased from 0.5 percent to 2 percent. The University was also struggling to get into contact with students for contact tracing.
“Because of the exponential factor with the virus, 2 percent can very quickly become 6 percent,” Rockwood says. “We all have the goal to have a successful, in-person semester, and we felt going online for two weeks improved our chances of that happening. We’re in a much better place now than we were when we decided to start the semester remotely.”
While the University has had a whole host of internal teams managing its response to COVID-19 for the last six months, leaders are still learning and restructuring their approach every day. Rockwood has regular meetings via Zoom and phone calls with other universities and businesses in the area, as well as with city and state leaders, to collaborate with them on issues that arise.
Although University leaders are tailoring plans specifically to Butler’s campus, they are able to draw inspiration from some of the systems that other schools and organizations have put in place. The Covid Concerns form, for example, was picked up from the BIG EAST, and an improved testing strategy was modeled after Yale University’s.
During the first two weeks of classes, the Health Services team continued working hard to keep the virus under control. The University also expanded its contact tracing staff, making that process more efficient.
“Health Services has been tremendous,” Rockwood says. “They’re led by Rhonda Jackson, who works around the clock. I really don’t think she even sleeps.”
The work of Health Services has allowed Butler to increase its testing capacity, offering tests to anyone with symptoms, individuals (and their roommates) who have come in close contact with a positive case, and those who are quarantined. Butler is also testing samples of asymptomatic students throughout the semester.
This increase of testing, along with the two-week online period, helped Butler get classes back in-person.
Gary Edgerton, a Professor of Creative Media and Entertainment, says that with the training faculty members received on how to conduct classes in the COVID-19 era, he was more than happy to have students back in the classroom. Edgerton says so far in his classes, he has seen no deviation from Butler’s health and safety guidelines.
Tory Combs, Butler’s Student Government Association Chief of Staff, says she believes that classes being virtual for the first two weeks encouraged students to take the rules more seriously.
“After being online for two weeks, I think it made students think more about what they can do to keep us in person as opposed to online,” Combs says. “I’ve seen people being really responsible about wiping down desks and wearing masks since we’ve been in person.”
Even after classes began in person, the positivity rate on campus has continued to decline.
“We didn’t want to have to go online for two weeks, but it was the best thing to do,” Rockwood says. “Looking back on it now, sometimes the right decision isn’t the easiest one. Hats off to the students. The social distancing, wearing masks, refraining from large gatherings—it’s working. We want to continue having a successful, in-person semester, and we’re on the right track.”